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THE PRICE OF GOLD 1 - David Ricardo, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 3 Pamphlets and Papers 1809-1811 
The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 3 Pamphlets and Papers 1809-1811.
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First published by Cambridge University Press in 1951. Copyright 1951, 1952, 1955, 1973 by the Royal Economic Society. This edition of The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., under license from the Royal Economic Society.
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THE PRICE OF GOLD 1
The present high market price above the mint price of gold, appears to have engrossed a great portion of the attention of the public; but they do not seem to be sufficiently impressed with the importance of the subject, nor of the disastrous consequences which may attend the further depreciation of paper. I am anxious, whilst there is yet time, that we should retrace our steps and restore the currency to that healthful state which so long existed in this country, and the departure from which is pregnant with present evil and future ruin.
The mint price of gold is 3l. 17s. 10½d. and the market price has been gradually increasing, and was within these two or three weeks as high as 4l. 13s. per ounce, not much less than 20 per cent. advance.
It is remarkable that between the years 1777 and 1797 the average price of gold was not higher than 3l. 17s. 7d. During that period, our currency was one of acknowledged purity. It is only since 1797, since the year that the Bank has been restricted from paying its notes in specie, that gold has risen to 4l., 4l. 10s., and latterly to 4l. 13s. per ounce. Whilst the Bank pays its notes in specie, there can never be any great difference between the mint and market-prices of gold. It is well known that, detection being difficult, notwithstanding the most severe, and, perhaps, absurd laws, when it becomes greatly the interest of individuals from a high market price of gold, the coin will be melted and sold as bullion, or exported, as it best suits the views of those who engage in such traffic. If, then, whilst the Bank paid in specie gold rose to 4l. or more per ounce, these dealers would exchange their notes at the Bank, obtaining an ounce of gold for every 3l. 17s. 10½d. in bank notes. This gold would be melted and sold, or exported for 4l. or more in bank-notes per ounce; and as this operation might be repeated daily, or indeed hourly, it would be continued till the Bank had withdrawn the superfluous quantity of their notes from circulation, and had thereby brought the market and mint prices of gold to a level. This is the only check which can exist to an over issue from the Bank, and was so well known that the Bank never ventured on it with impunity.
No efforts of the Bank could keep more than a certain quantity of notes in circulation, and if that quantity was exceeded, its effects on the price of gold always brought the excess back to the Bank for specie. Under such regulations the market price of gold could never rise much above the mint price, for who would give 4l. or more, in bank-notes, for an ounce of gold, when he might obtain the same at the Bank for 3l. 17s. 10½d. It would be the same thing as offering an ounce of gold and 2s. 10½d. for an ounce of gold.—When we talk of a high price of gold, it can have no meaning, if estimated in gold, or in notes which are immediately exchangeable for gold. It may be high, estimated in silver, or in goods of all kinds, and it is only when gold is high compared with goods, or in other words that goods are cheap, that any temptation is offered for its importation. When it is said that we may obtain 1l. 5s. for a guinea by sending it to Hamburg, what is meant but that we may get for it a bill on London for 1l. 5s. in bank-notes? Could this be the case if the bank paid in specie? Would any one be so blind to his interest as to offer me one guinea in specie and four shillings, for a guinea, when he might obtain the same at Hamburgh at par, paying only the expences of freight, &c.? It is only because he cannot get a guinea at the Bank for notes, that he consents to pay it with notes at the best price he can, or in other words he sells 1l. 5s. of his bank-notes for a guinea in specie.
When the Act restricting the Bank from paying in specie took place, all checks to the over issue of notes were removed, excepting that which the Bank voluntarily placed on itself, knowing that if they were not guided by moderation, the effects which would follow would be so notoriously imputable to their monopoly, that the Legislature would be obliged to repeal the Restriction Act.
Whilst the Bank is willing to lend, borrowers will always exist, so that there can be no limit to their over-issues, but that which I have just mentioned, and gold might rise to 8l. or 10l. or any other sum per ounce.—The same effect would be produced in the price of provisions and on all other commodities, and there would be no other remedy for the depreciation of paper, than the Bank withdrawing the superabundant quantity from circulation, by insisting on the merchants paying their bills as they became due, and refusing to renew their loans until the scarcity of circulating medium should so raise its value that it would be at par with gold. It could rise but little above that price, for from that moment importation of gold would commence, and if the Bank were gradually to withdraw all their notes from circulation, the place of those notes would as gradually be supplied by imported gold, which the high price—I mean the high price in goods, would infallibly draw to this country.
If my view of this subject has been correct, we are enabled to ascertain the amount of depreciation at which Bank notes at any time may be, and when gold was at 4l. 13s. per ounce, they appear to have arrived at the enormous discount of 20 per Cent. I may be asked if Bank notes are at so great a discount, how comes it that no shopkeeper will sell more goods for twenty guineas than for 21l. in Bank notes. For this I can only account by supposing that the trade of purchasing guineas at a premium, or in other words selling Bank notes at a discount, is one which would expose the man who openly undertook it to so much obloquy and suspicion, that notwithstanding the profit, no one is hardy enough to encounter the risk, particularly as the law is very severe against melting the coin or exporting it. But that it is practised secretly there can be no doubt, as the profit attending it is enormous, and the number of guineas in circulation, considering that nearly 60 millions have been coined in the present reign, is diminished to a very small amount.
It is sufficient for my argument if I prove that it is a trade which can advantageously be carried on—that if tradesmen could openly and readily sell guineas for twenty-three shillings each, or more in Bank notes, they could afford to sell their goods cheaper for gold than for Bank notes;—and it is sufficiently evident that buying guineas at twenty-three shillings is between 9 and 10 per cent. premium, and selling gold at 4l. 13s. or nearly 20 per cent. premium, is a trade much more advantageous than many carried on in the city of London.
If further proofs of the depreciation of Bank notes were wanting, and that it was caused by an over-issue, it would be found in the present rate of exchange with foreign countries. To make this apparent may require us to consider what is meant by the rate of exchange, and the rules and limits to which it is subject.
If I purchase from a resident in Holland goods of that country, the bargain is made in the money there current. I have consequently contracted to pay him a certain number of ounces of silver of a given purity. As the comparative value of silver and gold is nearly equal all over the world my debt may be either estimated in silver or in the number of ounces of gold for which it would exchange. And if a merchant in Holland has purchased from a resident in London goods which are valued in English money, he has contracted to pay a certain number of ounces of gold of known purity or fineness.
To save the expence of the freight and insurance attending the exporting and importing of a quantity of gold to liquidate these debts, it suits the convenience of both the parties, after agreeing how much money of the one country is equivalent, considering its weight, purity, &c. to that of the other, and which is called the par of exchange, to make a transfer by means of a bill, which is done by my paying to the English merchant the sum which I am indebted to my Correspondent in Holland, the English merchant ordering his Correspondent in Holland to pay to mine the same amount, estimated at the rate of exchange agreed on, in Dutch money. The advantage to both parties is saving freight and insurance. Now if two or more parties had been indebted to merchants in Holland, there would have been a competition between them for the purchase of this bill, and the seller would no longer have been satisfied with saving the freight and insurance on the importation of his gold, but would have exported, and would have obtained a premium for his bill, which it would have been the interest of either of the other parties to have given him, provided such premium did not exceed the expence of the transport of the metals. It is necessarily kept within that limit, for either would say, “the number of ounces of gold which I owe in Holland are ready to pay my debt. I am willing to give them to you to pay it for me, and to add to it the expences which would attend the sending it; but nothing can induce me to give more, as if you do not accept my offer, I shall suffer no further disadvantage by sending the gold!”— This is therefore the natural limit to the fall of the exchange, it can never fall more below par than these expences; nor can it ever rise more above par than the same amount.
But since the restriction on the Bank paying in specie, the fall of the exchange has kept pace with the rise in gold, and is now considerably lower than the limits which I have pointed out, and which may be accounted for in the following manner:—
A merchant can no longer say, that he is possessed of a sufficient number of ounces of gold to send abroad to pay his debt; he may say, indeed, that he has a sufficient number of bank notes, which if he could sell at par, or exchange at the Bank for what they profess to be, viz. an ounce of gold for every 3l. 17s. 10½d. he would have sufficient gold to pay his debt; but as things are, he must either sell his bank notes and be contented to obtain an ounce of gold, or 3l. 17s. 10½d. for every 4l. 13s. of notes, or agree to make an allowance at that rate to the person with whom he negociates his bill. Thus then it appears, that the exchange may not only fall to the limits which I have before mentioned, but also in an inverse proportion to the rise of gold, or rather the discount of bank notes. But these are the limits within which it is even now confined. It cannot on the one hand rise more above par than the expence of freight, &c. on the importation of gold, nor on the other fall more than the expences of freight, &c. on its exportation, added to the discount on bank notes.
If bills of exchange were payable in gold and not in bank notes, the restriction on the Bank from paying in specie, could not in any way affect the exchange beyond the limits which I before specified.
What becomes then of the argument which has so often been urged in Parliament, that whilst the rate of exchange continued against us, it would not be safe for the Bank to pay in specie, when it is evident that their not paying in specie is the cause of the present low exchange.
Let the Bank be enjoined by Parliament gradually to withdraw to the amount of two or three millions of their notes from circulation, without obliging them, in the first instance, to pay in specie, and we should very soon find that the market price of gold would fall to its mint price of 3l. 17s. 10½d. that every commodity would experience a similar reduction; and that the exchange with foreign countries would be confined within the limits above mentioned.
It would then be evident that all the evils in our currency were owing to the over-issues of the Bank, to the dangerous power with which it was entrusted of diminishing at its will, the value of every monied man’s property, and by enhancing the price of provisions, and every necessary of life, injuring the public annuitant, and all those persons whose incomes were fixed, and who were consequently not enabled to shift any part of the burden from their own shoulders.
[1 ]Morning Chronicle, 29 Aug. 1809.